Digitize Your Services: Stage 2 – Interact
This post is part 2 of 5 in a series about digitizing government services.
The first step to making your agency accessible digitally is to bring your information online. The next step is to bring your activities (e.g., like applying or paying for services) online.
With a great website, you can answer residents’ questions and respond to their needs faster. Agencies spend valuable hours correcting inaccurate, unclear, or incomplete information that their residents provide on paper forms. According to a recent survey* of county government officials, 60% of agency staff said their residents receive services mostly in person, and 65% said they receive requests that their agencies do not handle. And residents incur real costs, like transportation and lost wages, to receive services in person.
When you allow people to interact with your website:
- People can apply for a permit or pay a bill online
- Online services are web-native, rather than pdf
- These online submissions generate an email or spreadsheet for agency staff
Putting your activities online can drastically reduce the amount of paper used in government offices. One agency program manager who digitized the process to contest a parking ticket in his city had this to say of the benefits:
“The old process involved handling paper, which can be time-consuming and space-consuming. The results [of these resident requests] were mailed to the citizens. Now that responses are given online, cost savings are realized as the need for postage has been eliminated.”
Most importantly, putting services online streamlines the cumbersome processes that are currently employed in most government agencies. That same agency program manager continued:
“The time to process a request has been cut tremendously. What used to take hours to do now only takes a few minutes. I have more time available to do other tasks, and the response time to citizens has improved.”
The goal of this stage is to start to bring government services online, by providing a way for people to fill out an application and provide the necessary information to the agency, without using a printer, scanner, sending mail, or leaving their homes. To do this we need, at a minimum, to provide native, online forms. In broad strokes, here’s how it might work:
Pick a service: Start simple to test the tools and process. Look for an application, such as a program or permit application, that requires the resident or business to provide information only (rather than supplementary documents, signatures, or notarization). Alternately you can start with a request that might otherwise be handled by phone.
Build the online form: Identify the information you need the person to submit. Sometimes paper forms collect more information than the agency actually needs to process the request. Slimming down the form will make it easier for residents to complete and easier for staff to process. There are a few options available for bringing forms online:
- Google forms or other tools: If the form is something used primarily internally—for example, to share information between team members or agencies—or if it’s something that the staff initiates by sending a link to a constituent, you can start with a simple solution like a Google form or another free or low-cost survey tool. This is a quick, low-tech way to start experimenting.
- Custom development: Your IT staff or a consultant can create the form on your agency website. When you do this, you want to be thoughtful about where the page will live in your site navigation, making it as easy as possible for people to find.
- Form builder: When you want to invest in bringing many forms online, you can start to explore tools that make this process consistent and repeatable. CityBase and other companies have created drag and drop form builders so that non-technical staff members can create and modify the forms they need, and then either embed them or link to them on your agency’s website.
Define the intake process: We need to be thoughtful about where the user-submitted data goes. Ideally, you can introduce this type of digital evolution without too much disruption, by making incremental changes rather than overhauling a process. So the same person or team who receives and manages the paper forms today might instead receive an email generated by the form submission, or a spreadsheet of aggregated submissions. Ultimately, you can use custom or configurable workflow tools to make the entire process digital, and create integrations to the databases your agency uses to do business. We discuss this more in the next stage of the digital evolution, “integrate.”
Evaluate and enhance the process: Starting small allows you to evaluate what is working and what needs to change. You might immediately realize that you’re not collecting the right information, or don’t have a good workflow established for communicating back to the applicant. Make sure that someone owns the process and has the access and authority to change and improve it.
In addition to making the transition to online services, agencies in this stage of the journey can also start using digital tools for simple processes:
A great way to get started is to implement common digital tools in your daily work. Many of these tools are already available at no cost.
Here are some good first steps to implement:
- Internal file sharing: Using tools like Dropbox, Box, or an internal server can help avoid problems with versioning, misplaced files, and disseminating outdated information. Instead of printing out a document to get your colleague’s comments, you can simply send them an email linking to the correct file on the server.
- Document collaboration: With a document collaboration tool like Google Docs, you can work simultaneously with colleagues on a document or spreadsheet, leave each other comments, and compare earlier versions – all from the comfort of your desk.
- Electronic meeting handouts: Instead of distributing huge paper packets before meetings, provide employees with tablets or Evernote that can access the document packet from a central server. That cuts down on wasted printouts and ensures everyone has the meeting notes at hand.
Making your website interactive can save your staff hours of work. You can also simplify processes further by integrating the newly digital front-end with digital workflow tools for staff and other, existing databases.
*Survey of 2018 participants to National Association of Counties and National Association of County Collectors, Treasurers & Finance Officers conferences
Also published on Medium.